Looking back on the topics of the first assignment, and looking ahead to the next: what was the thinking behind this choice of subject matter?
Starting with observation: nice to do, it makes you look carefully, if not “properly”: we see what we are disposed to see. The artistic heights of looking and seeing were probably achieved with Impressionism, whose painters gave us a visual language for seeing the landscape, all about the effects of light, the subtle depiction of perspective, the poetry of complementary colours. But you look at a landscape like this one below, and you think, the subject and the approach somehow don’t fit: even the romantic blur of Turner’s steam trains would be, well, romantic, when applied to trains which run past every three minutes on their network of lines. So, just as quickly, you are transported forwards into futurism, vorticism, attempts to combine geometry and angularity into the impression of movement and speed, the celebration of precision, hard metals and engineering, not the blur of trees and hills the trains slice through.
So how do we interpret this “scene” before us? Taking a picture, instead of looking and selecting, is a way of getting another point of view on it, one that doesn’t omit the untidy details, the clutter that distracts from what we have settled on as the “subject”, not always the same as the “focus” in a photograph. Soon you might want to discount the evidence of your own eye entirely, as being too particular, too partisan. I did this with this assignment. The word “landscape” itself conjured up a way of looking, and seeing, that didn’t gel with the evidence before my eyes.
Ludwig Meiner (Art in Theory, p. 171) in the second decade of the 20th century pronounced that landscape was an unsuitable subject for painters, and exhorted artists to paint the metropolis “what is right there in front of us”, but describing its “roaring colours”, “singing electrical wires” in the language that romantic poets used about nature, a claim to beauty in the urban, somewhat the same point as Turner was making with his trains. By the same argument, if this is what “is right there in front of us”, it should be possible to make the same kind of claim for “ugly beauty” in this landscape of electrical transformers, trampled clay, concrete towers, steel mesh, plastic, tarpaulin, worker’s gloves, thrown away polystyrene lunch boxes, water bottles, cigarette butts. But how?
Malevich’s answer to the Vorticists was to denounce their adherence to “subject matter”, and advocated an art of geometric floating shapes in relation to which the painted surface is the “life form” and contains no realism. This all becomes rather sterile though, positioning oneself on the very far reaches of the cline from “specific”, via “general” to way beyond abstract. Those who traditionally supported non-elitist forms of art have tended over the years, but particularly during the sharp bourgeois/ proletariat divisiveness of when communism was still viable, linked representational art with craft, honesty and other sons-of-the-soil virtues. But some element of abstraction is necessary, some way of selecting from all that information you see in the photograph, reducing it/ enhancing it in the process. By what process?
Am looking the the section of “Art and Theory” on the subject of “Abstraction and Form”. Still looking for some way of judging…
Hans Arp: “The works presented here are constructions of lines, planes, forms, colours….”
Man Ray: “The artist’s work is to be measured by its own vitality, the invention, and the definitiveness and conviction of purpose within its own medium.”
Viktor Schlovsky (p 279-): philosophical ideas about art, thought, language and poetry:
“Poetry is a special way of thinking…. ” “Art is thinking in images…” Art is poetry, and poetry is art. Art is the making of symbols. Language is the vehicle of thought. Art is about perception, the defamiliarisation of the object. Art and poetry share the same aim of making seeing, and making understanding language difficult, slowing down the process to stop it being automatic.
Theo van Doesburg
The work of art is an independent artistically alive organism in which everything counterbalances everything else. (Impressionists had done this earlier with colour relationships)
Piet Mondrian (1920) Neo-Plasticism: The general principle of plastic equivalence
Mondrian opposed Individual against Universal, descriptiveness against purity, changeable against immutable. An analogy with Plato’s cave suggests itself, of representational art tragically blind to the world of pure form.
Malevich:” Everything that we see arose from the colour mass transformed into plane and volume. Every machine, house, person and table, all are pictorial value systems intended for particular purposes.” (Could be a quote from The Matrix)
“The artist too must transform the colour masses and create an artistic system, but he must not paint pictures of little fragrant roses since all this would be dead representation pointing back to life.” (Ironic that that’s what he had to do eventually.)
This is all a highly rationalised view of art. I will consider less rational approaches in the next post.